I met an old friend Sunday in the parking after Mass. I was surprised to see him because he didn't live anywhere near that parish.
We spoke for a few minutes and I asked him why he was up in this neck of the woods and he looked painfully over my shoulder and said that he'd just rented an apartment nearby because he was getting a divorce. As you can imagine I felt like an absolute idiot for bringing it up so I told him how sorry I was and asked about how the kids were doing. He has three kids and I've always known him to be a dutiful and loving father. But he said the strangest thing. He said he thought that the kids wanted what was best for their parents. He said that if he and his wife were happier apart then the kids would be happier.
Now, I have no idea what went on in his marriage but this statement is so far from my lived reality that I didn't know how to respond. I don't think my kids are the worst kids in the world but I don't think they're all that concerned with my happiness. It seems to me that kids want presence. Kids don't particularly care if you're happy to go to their little league game. They want you there. If you sat your kid down and explained to him that you'd really be much happier watching a documentary on WWII than going to his 37th little league game that would inevitably be called off after the other team took the lead 137-121, he'd probably get a bit upset.
When my kid is watching the clouds roll by over his right field position, every once in a while he'll look over to the sideline and wave to me. Some of the moms think this is cute. But I know different. This is not a touching Americana moment. He's just making sure I'm watching him. He's not particularly concerned with the fact that the sun is making my head fry and I'm about to throw my Super Big Gulp at the umpire if he doesn't start calling strikes soon at any pitch that doesn't hit the backstop on the fly.
My kid is just happy I'm there and watching him. And he's also happy that he's in right field because the ball never makes it out there and that's OK because he's scared to death of any and all circular things flying or bouncing at his head. So he's happy just knowing I'm there and not throwing circular things at him.
But I've developed a theory of parenting that says just showing up is sometimes good enough. I have no medical training but I've been the first line of defense for colds, allergic reactions, bee bites, broken bones, scrapes, bangs, bruises. And I've handled it all. You want to know how? Just being there. I've put countless band aids on invisible boo-boos because the kid just wants the acknowledgement that they're a little banged up and maybe a hug and a Batman band aid are what's necessary. I've held many daughters hair as they got sick at three a.m. No special training necessary. It's just being there.
I've taught my children the best way to come off a basketball screen. I'm no expert but it's something I can pass on so I do. I've taught them the way to make an Icee without overflowing the cup. I've taught them how to brush even the teeth they can't see. It's kind of important if you don't want your breath to smell like kitty litter. But it's just being there. I think we as a culture don't value just being there enough.
This, of course, is not rocket science but I've even found a study from "The Longevity Project" that reports, according to The Wall Street Journal, that "the early death of a parent had no measurable effect on children's life spans or mortality risk, but the long-term health effects of broken families were often devastating. Parental divorce during childhood emerged as the single strongest predictor of early death in adulthood. The grown children of divorced parents died almost five years earlier, on average, than children from intact families. The causes of death ranged from accidents and violence to cancer, heart attack and stroke. Parental break-ups remain, the authors say, among the most traumatic and harmful events for children."
I sometimes fear that we've been far too easy on ourselves for far too long. We've told ourselves that for our kids to be happy we need to cater to ourselves and make ourselves happy but let's tell the truth- that truism doesn't really connect with reality as most of us know it. And I think we know it.
When my wife and I first had children I was a reporter and she was an accountant and I swallowed the lie that while I didn't have a whole lot of time with my little daughter I had "quality time." So yeah, my daughter was being raised by women who I didn't even know their last name because I called them "Miss Lisa" and "Miss Gloria." And I congratulated my wife and I for being such great parents for making our time together of such quality that it didn't matter I didn't see my child all that much.
I know sometimes both parents have to work. But my wife and I figured out how I could work from home and I left my job as a reporter. And I can tell you that the request I've had from my five kids more than any other is "Dad, watch me" as they try to cartwheel for the first time or throw something in the air and catch it with their other hand. They just want me there to watch.
Some days my parenting consists of telling them to go outside and throw circular things at each other's heads but some days I'll actually go throw circular things at their heads myself. I can't teach them the best way to throw a curve ball or a slider but I can throw it back to them and I can chase it when they throw it wild and I've got band aids for when it hits them in the head. It's no special skills. It's just being there. Sometimes that's enough.